Upon hearing news of Malcolm’s visit to campus, Carmichael promised to lick envelopes and sweep floors so long as he garnered a front-row seat. The October 30 event was a debate between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin, and it would become an instant legend. Carmichael did indeed make it to the front row of the debate; dressed in a suit and tie, he gazed intently at the proceedings. In a few short years, after Malcolm’s assassination, supporters and critics would practically anoint Carmichael as the slain leader’s official political heir. But at the great debate, Carmichael could only watch in awe, along with his classmates, at the power of Malcolm X. Here was a man who at thirty-six years old had transcended a life scarred by childhood tragedy, juvenile crime, and almost seven years in prison to emerge as the most authentic working-class black leader of the twentieth century.
NAG hosted Malcolm’s visit through Project Awareness, a forum designed to present opposing views of hot-button issues. E. Franklin Frazier helped to negotiate the terms of Malcolm’s appearance in the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuver that endeared him to campus radicals. Rustin had personally approached Malcolm with the idea after university administrators objected to the Nation of Islam minister delivering an unopposed lecture. “You’ll present your views,” said Rustin, “and then I’ll attack you as someone having no political, social, or economic program for dealing with the problems of blacks.” This last line represented a vintage Rustin provocation, one that Malcolm responded to accordingly: “I’ll take you up on that.”
Excerpted with permission from Stokely: A Life, by Peniel Joseph. Available from Basic Civitas Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.